Third Place

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of fond memories of squeaking onto the podium into third place. If you race or compete in Time Trial, you might be smiling about a time you finished in that third spot. Third place is usually the second most cheerful driver on the podium. Speed News’ Toolshed Engineer writer Rob Krider coined third place as the “just happy to be here,” driver. First place is obviously the most cheerful. Second place is usually replaying the race in his or her mind, focusing on winning the next one.

There is another kind of third place that originated in urban planning, of all things, but I think it has a tether to motorsports in general, and NASA in particular.

As near as I can tell, the phrase was coined in 2014 by sociology professor Ray Oldenburg from the University of West Florida writing for the New York Times. The headline was, “Every Community Deserves a Third Place.” The story described what happens when neighborhoods lose their economic viability, and what can be done to restore it. The answer, as Oldenburg put it, was to create great “people places” where they are needed most. Oldenburg died in 2022, but his point in the column is still being discussed.

It is probably worth mentioning that in this thought experiment, your first place is your home. Your second place is where you work.

One example Oldenburg cited was a man in Lake Forest Park, Wash., who bought a failed shopping center, once a focal point for crime and drug use, and transformed it into a thriving community hub with restaurants, nightly entertainment, a book store and a “chess alley.” Locals flocked to it, and soon enough, property values in the area began to rise.

Oldenburg’s column was something of an amicus brief to urban planners and city officials to create policies and tax structures to help develop these third places so communities can come together and thrive.

If you think about the theory of a third place in Oldenburg’s terms, it essentially formed the basis for a number of television sitcoms over the years. Off the top of my head, “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother,” all focused in some measure on the characters’ third place. They were, in order, a bar, two coffee shops and another bar. There must be other examples, but you get the idea.

You can probably see where I am headed with this, but in motorsports, our third place is the track. It is where we come together with our people and thrive. I have met some of the greatest people I have ever known at the track. I saw a few of them last weekend at the SoCal season opener at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in Desert Center, Calif. The funny thing is no racetracks I know of are located in urban areas, so given what we have learned from commodity theory, the time and effort we put in just to get to the track makes the experience that much more valuable to us.

Of course, in the age of the Internet, which Oldenburg did not address, it is possible to develop a third place online. NASA has its share of forums, a diaspora of Facebook groups and a Discord server, but none of them have the sensory inputs and personal connections of being at the track. Maybe anything online more correctly would be termed a fourth place?

That liquor-sweet smell of burned race gas, fresh tires and hot brakes cannot be experienced online. When you are online, you can type out advice to help a buddy fix his car, but it’s nothing like crawling under there with him to get the car fixed in time to make it to grid. That is something only a physical third place can provide, and what makes it every bit as essential to NASA members as the great people places Oldenburg cited in his New York Times column.

Of course, the irony here is that our third place is one of the first places we would rather be. See you at the track.

Image courtesy of Brett Becker


  1. There are some tracks in urban areas or close. California Speedway comes to mind for Socal(who knows how long it’ll be there for). COTA just outside Austin. Sears Point and Laguna are close to urban centers. IMS is just outside downtown Indy. Homestead and PBIR close to Miami. But yeah, unfortunately most are rural and you have to drive a ways to them.

Join the Discussion